Singapore’s Worrying Answer to 'Fake News': Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act
On 2 October 2019, Singapore introduced the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act’ to combat ‘fake news’. This new law is being criticised by free speech advocates for its potential to suppress political expression on social media.
This new Act grants Singapore Government ministers the power to issue individuals and organisations using internet intermediary services (namely, social media platforms, websites and online news outlets) with correction and disabling direction orders. Such orders will require parties who make false statements to correct or remove them from their sites.
A correction or disabling order will occur if the Singapore Government authorities deem the statements to be:
“false statements of fact” and are likely to be prejudicial to public safety or tranquillity; or
have an influence of the outcome of an election; or
diminish public confidence in the performance of the government.
While the Singaporean Government assures that the Act aims only to prevent the spread of harmful falsehoods, there has been wide criticism of these laws granting broad powers to the Government enabling the supression of political discourse, particularly in the form of political dissent and critique.
In particular, the International Commission of Jurists condemned the laws warning of the “real risk that the law will be misused to clamp down on opinions or information critical of the government".
Free press advocates Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 151 out of 180 countries in terms of their press freedoms, and other critics fear the potential of the Singapore Government using this Act for political purposes. Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said the law could “provide a carte blanche for Singapore ministers” to take down any online content they unilaterally deem false, regardless of where it originates in the world.
While some criticise the legislation, others blame the failure of social media platforms to address issues of false information themselves. Kirsten Han of New Naratif said “the problems that tech companies have had with fake news and hate speech have given (governments) a good opportunity to justify the need for such laws” .
However, the effect of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act on freedom of press is already being felt around the world.
Last month the fringe news site, the States Times Review posted on Facebook about the arrest of an alleged whistleblower and election-rigging. According to the Singapore Government, the post contained "scurrilous accusations" and it was therefore deemed to contain false information.
Founder and Australian citizen, Alex Tan, was ordered by Singapore authorities to correct the post but refused, saying he would "not comply with any order from a foreign government". The Singapore Government then turned to Facebook and ordered the publication of a correction notice as required under the new Act.
On 13 November 2019, the Singapore Government also ordered opposition policitian and current Progress Singapore Party (PSP) member, Brad Bowyer, to correct his Facebook post in which he questioned the independence of state investment funds, Temasek and GIC.
Mr Bowyer had no alternative but to comply with the Correction Direction stating: "Although I have no problems in following the law...that does not mean that I agree with the position they are taking or admit to any false statements on my part".
Failure to comply with a notice issued under the new laws carries penalties of up to 5 year's imprisonment for individuals, in addition to fines of up to SGD$50,000 for individuals, and up to SGD$1 million for companies.
By Chris Diab